Sharon May 22nd, 2008
There are tiny green apricots on my two apricot trees. I’m sure those of you from South Jersey down are thinking…so? But this is rural *upstate* New York. I live at 1400 feet, effectively zone 4, and no one grows apricots here. Whenever I mention my apricot trees, people look at me strangely, as though I’m mad to even attempt it. And I’m pretty awed myself – the first thing we did after moving here was to plant two apricot trees, which hung around looking pretty but producing nothing for a couple of years, and then died in an especially cold winter. So while it isn’t a miracle, it is perhaps the next step down – something extraordinary that gives you, if not evidence of transcendence, a tiny, tasty hint of its possibility.
But to understand the apricots, you have to know about the two gardens that came before this one. The first one was in Paramus, New Jersey, perhaps the most archetypical suburb I’ve ever visited, the kind of place that makes James Kunstler moan with pain. It was also Eric’s grandparents’ home for 20 years. They lived in a 1950s style suburban brick ranch in one of those places where there are lawn mowers going at 7 in the morning and you can’t walk to anything useful.
But that’s only part of the story. It was also another kind of suburb – one where Inge and Cyril were friends with their neighbors and the neighbors’ kids. They tutored the Russian immigrants down the road in English, shared holiday dinners with the orthodox Jewish family across the street, babysat the Pakistani family next door’s child. As they got older and less physically able, their neighbors looked out for them, came and helped them out with chores, brought over meals – as they had for neighbors before. The suburbs may have been a mad dream, but the mad dreamer came, and some of them brought their love for a place, and a house and a space, and they loved it into something beautiful.
And it was where their garden was. All my best memories of them are of their garden – if the the weather was at all warm enough, that’s where one went, out to lie in the lounge chairs or play games on the grass. It was lush, green, enclosed and miraculously peaceful. Both of them worked long hours in their garden – Cyril was the architect, and I remember him, 92 or 93, slowly but surely planting out begonias and saving me seeds from his lovely blue columbine. It was their paradise, their pride and their delight. It literally gave them life – I suspect that Cyril lived at least a year longer than he would have if he had not had his garden to get him out of his chair and into the world.
It is easy to mock suburbia, to see it as fodder for, say the suburb eating robots. But whether the idea of suburbia was always good, its execution had its troubling parts, but also its peculiar virtues and beauties as well. It is easy to forget those, as we sit judgement of what we ought have done. But I think a limited view of the suburbs is probably a mistake – at least, I can’t have one, because I remember the tremendous beauty and generosity of a host of suburban gardens, and the neighborhood they fostered. not least theirs. Because if you can love even a 1950s brick ranch and a suburban neighborhood into beauty, you can love and transform anything in the world.
When it came time for them to come live with us, one of the things they desperately wanted was a garden. By that time, Cyril was too ill and Inge too exhausted from caring for him to want to maintain anything. They simple wanted a beautiful space to rest in. So we made one. We helped them hire a landscape designer. And he made them a suburban garden in miniature, a truly beautiful one, lending shape to our vast rural landscape. The addition they lived in had its main entrance in an area enclosed on 3 sides by the house and the attached garage they wanted. It faced south, and the landscape designer hauled in far more fertile topsoil than lives on our farm, and filled it in with beautiful shrubs and low care perennials. I planted the scarlet runner beans and columbines they’d always had, since Cyril was a boy in Wales, and they rested in their gardens.
Until only a month or two before he died, Cyril was the garden designer. He said would say, “Sharon, darling, would you get me that grass seed in the garage.” And, of course, I would oblige. “What do you want to do with it, Grandpa?” I asked. “Well, I’d like to plant it, but I’m afraid I’m not up to it. Have you any thoughts about how it might get planted?” He was a clever man, and not much limited by his physical constraints.
Sadly, Eric’s grandparents lived here only a couple of years. Cyril died a few weeks before his 95th birthday, and Inge couldn’t live without him – she lasted only 4 months afterwards. And for the first year without them, we were simply too sad to do anything but go out in the garden, look at it and miss them.
In the springtime after their deaths, I had a dream. I dreamt that a grapevine and a rosebush in their garden grew all the way up to the second floor of the house, and burst in through our window one morning, blooming and scattering lush petals and fruit across the floor. And I woke up and for the very first time, looked at their garden, and thought that perhaps the garden could continue to be their memorial, perhaps be a better memorial, if I changed it a little, and made their garden bring forth not just beauty, but fruit, so that their great-grandchildren could not just enjoy the shaded beauty, but the taste of the space and gift they’d left us.
The first year I dug out a rhodedendron (I hated the thing anyway) and and a couple of viburnums and replaced them with two apricot trees and two quinces. I didn’t do much else, but that itself was enormous – at first it looked like I’d defaced their garden, removing these beautiful, productive shrubs and placing these little sticks in next to them, but they are glorious trees, and rapidly the beauty came back. The next year I took out a few more plants, added some raspberries and blackberries, comfrey, sweet woodruff, some pennyroyal as a ground cover, and a row of alpine strawberries to edge it. This year, I started out cautious, afraid that if I took out the wiegela and spirea I’d have stripped their garden altogether, but really looked at it, and saw how beautiful it was – no less, and perhaps more – and I got brave. I bought blueberries to replace the evergreen shrubs (they are all getting moved off to another part of the garden, don’t worry), hazels to go where the weigela was, and two peach trees to replace the forsythia. I planted lupins in around the blueberries, mixed in yarrows, and I’ve got two wolfberries waiting to be planted. And I bought some grapevines, and I’m going to see if I can train them all the way up to the second floor.
The apricots bloomed for the first time this year, and in our protected, south facing microclimate had their blossoms even survive a hard late frost. I was afraid they hadn’t been adequately pollinated, but yesterday the boys came running in to tell me that there were dozens of small green apricots on the tree, and so there were. As I said, it isn’t quite a miracle – just a grand unlikelihood, brought to fruition.
The garden is a fusion – the blue columbine seed brought from New Jersey, an echo of flowers from a garden in Wales, still come back every year. Fewer of the shrubs they picked out are in that part of the garden each year, but a few still are, and the scarlet runner beans race up the trellis every year, and my boys pick and eat them, calling them “Grampy’s beans.” The fruit and nut plants are mine and my idea, but Eric and the boys do all the planting this year, while I work. And the dream, well, who knows where that came from.
All gardens are fusions, hybrids, mixes of memories from our childhoods, ideas we picked up, the gifts of friends who bring chives and new thoughts, the love of people who taught you to garden, or the kindness of the strangers who help us. They contain histories so long and vast we cannot track them back – who first domesticated the potato? Who first bred this tomato, this flower? Who carried this seed across water, and how did it change when it reached these shores? What wild meadow and ancient apple combined to create this fruit? And how is it now different, in my place, in my garden?
This garden of mine is the fusion of dreams and memories, of people we loved and love still, no less that they are less proximate. It is the fusion of desires – of the suburban landscape and the food producing one. It is the linking of past and present, with the futures that run about me, nibbling and dancing. And sure as G-d made little green apricots, it will change some more under their hands, and hopefully, on and on.